Mental/intellectual fitness
May 1, 2017 5:33 PM   Subscribe

I miss the challenge of constant critical thinking demanded in college and grad school. Reading the news is no longer cutting it, because I end up angry and depressed. I'm looking for ideas. Short of taking a class (I don't have the time unless it's self-paced), what are some creative and fun ways you keep fit intellectually/mentally?

Things I enjoy:
  • Making things (knitting, crocheting, mixed media)
  • Learning a language (currently Spanish and a tiny bit of French)
  • Reading books and book reviews (fiction/nonfiction, short stories. Just finished Hillbilly Elegy and the Handmaid's Tale)
  • Reading the news/learning about the world and politics
  • Watching documentaries
  • posted by onecircleaday to Education (34 answers total) 62 users marked this as a favorite
    Best answer: How do you feel about trivia?
    posted by Huffy Puffy at 5:44 PM on May 1, 2017 [3 favorites]

    I enjoyed this book of brain teasers. Also, taking a free university course online may be the ticket.
    posted by dances_with_sneetches at 5:49 PM on May 1, 2017

    Join a social club of some sort. It can be tough to find the right fit but a good book club, or maybe Toastmasters, or a political club (Drinking Liberally would be an example from the left). Or, connected to your making things idea, find a local makerspace or hobbyist group. Talking to people interested in the same things as you, or things adjacent to your interests, will expose you to new info about those things and will be engaging.
    posted by Wretch729 at 5:50 PM on May 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

    Some computer games and board games can give your brain a real work out.

    Some example board games: Pandemic series, Catan series, Roll for the Galaxy.
    Some example video games: Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup, Dwarf fortress (these are free, in some sense about optimizing) Puyopop, Tetris, Bejewelled series. Any good "puzzle game" can suck in its own type of person who is attracted to that type of pattern recognition/manipulation, many free and open variants of all these on many platforms. For short-term and on the go, iOS and Android have plenty of games that combine aspects of the above.

    Another tack, longer term: learning and making music. Melodicas, recorders, ocarinas, thumb pianos: all inexpensive and engaging!
    posted by SaltySalticid at 5:57 PM on May 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

    I'm the same way! And while I love picking up new hobbies, nothing has scratched the itch quite like duolingo. It's structured enough like a class that my somewhat competitive nature comes out. Codeacademy is another option for the same reason.
    posted by umwhat at 6:02 PM on May 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

    Writing letters to the editor on topics you care about but aren’t an expert in is a good reason to do research, formulate arguments, and feel like you are in a larger conversation (and not just screaming at your kitchen table). I’m in grad school and I find composing 150-word rebuttals to bad coverage or issue framing in the local newspaper very satisfying. It restores my agency in news consumption. Plus more than 5 people will actually read this, unlike my damn dissertation.
    posted by spamandkimchi at 6:02 PM on May 1, 2017 [18 favorites]

    Have you ever tried your hand at computer programming?
    posted by enfa at 6:03 PM on May 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

    Some additional things I or my friends have dabbled and found intellectually stimulating, fun, and engaging (many in grad school and beyond, YMMV):

    Macrame, spoon carving, 3D printing, gardening, model trains, cooking, weaving, painting, calligraphy, model giant robots, beads, foraging, fermenting (pickles, kombucha, kefir, beer), bird watching, actual robots, archery, lego, pottery, bonsai, bushcraft/survivalism, local history. Some of these may even have local social/activity groups in your area.
    posted by SaltySalticid at 6:11 PM on May 1, 2017

    Board games!! My husband and I make dinner each night and play board games while we are cooking and eating. It beats the pants off of the boob tube any day. :)

    Trivia is also a good option as are crosswords, certain video games and even taping jeopardy and fast forwarding through the commercials. Especially when we forget about the jeopardy and then have like, 10 episode to get through.
    posted by floweredfish at 6:18 PM on May 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

    Maybe start an Etsy store; for your knitting, crocheting, and mixed media art? Combines the enjoyment of your hobbies with the challenges of commerce, not to mention the chance to bring potential customers a great deal of pleasure. You could craft someone's next family heirloom! Which, isn't a half bad store name: "Next Family Heirloom Creations". I'd buy from you. :)
    posted by Amor Bellator at 6:23 PM on May 1, 2017

    - TED Talks
    - Quizzes
    - Babble
    posted by davcoo at 6:35 PM on May 1, 2017

    I recently joined a local makerspace where I can teach myself woodworking (goal: build furniture) without having to pay for and house a ton of expensive and large machines. And if/when I get bored with that, they also have CNCs, a laser cutter, an embroidery machine, a metal shop, and soldering station. I can go putter around on my own time.

    There are actually self-paced online courses out there in handicrafts. Look at Udemy or the Great Courses and also Instructables has some as well.

    Board games is also a good suggestion, but you need friends who are, er, game, and time to get together with them. I want to play all the board games, but finding two other people (+ husband = optimum gaming unit of four) and then finding a Friday or Saturday night that works for everyone is not a reliable enough source for this pursuit too scratch my learning itch. YMMV.
    posted by soren_lorensen at 6:38 PM on May 1, 2017

    Look for a book club - you may have to try a few to find one where folks actually read and discuss the books.

    I'm involved with a volunteer group and the more knowledge I can acquire about related laws, local history related to our focus, and what's being done in other cities, the more impact I can have. If you're interested in volunteering it can dovetail nicely with mental fitness.
    posted by bunderful at 6:44 PM on May 1, 2017

    I've enjoyed forays into local history a lot. I've been working on a project about the architecture of a particular neighborhood, which has involved researching the history of the area, the history of American houses, urban development generally, etc.

    Another great self-paced learning hobby is astronomy. You probably have a club near you that arranges star parties so you can do some social stuff through it, but there are books and apps to get you started on your own, and good websites and blogs and magazines for day-to-day coverage. You can dig in deeper to lots of particular things as you get curious about them (history of astronomy, why do nebulas do that?, hang on there is a lot of math here, what is NASA up to this week, etc.). Planetariums and observatories are dotted all over the US that you can visit. You can start with your eyeballs and an app (I like Star Chart), and graduate to binoculars (which are a lot easier than beginner telescopes and you can see a lot!).

    Then you can use the same binoculars to take up birdwatching, which is another good low-key, local, science-and-nature learning hobby. :)
    posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:45 PM on May 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

    Best answer: There's a classic Askme thread of books you consider essential for your knowledge domain. Reading challenging books really scratches this itch for me (especially on a book stand so I can knit at the same time!) and you might find a field you didn't know you were dying to get into. I, for instance, found I love epidemiology and now have a frankly weird bookshelves and trove of knowledge I knew nothing of before.

    If you'd like a book list of challenging books in multiple domains please feel welcome to memail me, I am a dragon of books but don't want to spam the thread. :)
    posted by hapaxes.legomenon at 7:17 PM on May 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

    Genealogy can be engaging and challenging.
    posted by girlmightlive at 7:43 PM on May 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

    Best answer: There are a lot of online self-paced courses available, for example at udemy. You should also look through Udacity or Coursera.
    posted by the agents of KAOS at 8:44 PM on May 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

    If you're already into knitting and crocheting, consider getting into spinning & weaving. Use a turkish or drop spindle for entry-level spinning, and nails on a picture frame are enough to get you started in weaving.

    Here's the thing about weaving. I used to work for someone who told me all about doing coding with computers in his lifetime, back when it involved punch cards. Know where punch cards came from? A LOOM. SO COOL.

    Or you could write books. Or you could craft Metafilter posts.
    posted by aniola at 9:12 PM on May 1, 2017

    There's always the NYT. crossword puzzle.
    posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:45 PM on May 1, 2017 [3 favorites]

    IME all the hobby-type suggestions here that points you towards social interaction is going to have a chance to be constantly growing. There's always someone who knows more, unless you are going to get obsessed to the point of social awkwardness (and probably even then.) It doesn't necessarily need to be a club, if you can do something like gardening you can do it, read it, and talk about it.

    On the reading side I mostly read escapist crap for entertainment but try to make a point of marking down interesting & pootentially books from the reviews section of good magazines or the New York Review of Books to occasionally stretch myself. I also write at least a mini review after each one, you can post on Amazon, GoodReads, a blog, etc.

    On preview: The NYT crossword puzzle, absolutely. They charge you for online access but it's not much and that just means it's separate from the news stuff.
    posted by mark k at 9:48 PM on May 1, 2017

    posted by pompomtom at 9:56 PM on May 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

    I briefly used some of those "brain training" apps (Lumosity) before stopping playing games on my tablet all together. Who knows if they work but beats melting your brain with candy crush or reality tv (my personal black hole).

    Crosswords for sure. I also love the game Set (two player, so requires less organization than a Catan night). My husband loves Tangrams so despite my horrific spatial awareness we play those sometimes too.

    Part of this had to do with switching from consuming to producing, I think, which turns your brain on instead of off. Like for books: writing Goodreads reviews of the books you read, starting or joining a book club, going to events at your local library.
    posted by athirstforsalt at 11:08 PM on May 1, 2017

    Bookmark the campus event calendar for nearby colleges and universities. While summer isn’t the best season for this, there are an amazing number of free-and-open-to-the-public great lectures and panels in any given semester. In a 7 week stretch of time (March/April) I saw two feminist philosophers, a MacArthur Genius recipient, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter, and a hip hop historian. Make a date with a friend to nerd out and then get dinner afterwards to process!
    posted by spamandkimchi at 12:50 AM on May 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

    Memory training!

    You could learn the Major System or any other peg system.

    If you want an impressive specialized memory skill, you could teach yourself to memorize a shuffled deck of cards.
    posted by yankeefog at 1:48 AM on May 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

    Duolingo, chess, and listening to audiobooks like Proust in the car.
    posted by kevinbelt at 4:02 AM on May 2, 2017

    I take self-paced courses at All kinds of neat topics are available.
    posted by The Almighty Mommy Goddess at 4:16 AM on May 2, 2017 [3 favorites]

    Community projects. If there's not one you're excited about, start it! The process can be far more approachable than you might think, and there's basically infinite potential for digging into the thick of problems.
    posted by teremala at 4:47 AM on May 2, 2017

    I've been learning computer programming to scratch this particular itch. I'm currently taking CS classes at the university at which I work, but I started with a Coursera class. (It was Introduction to Interactive Programming in Python. You make video games! I found it challenging but doable as an absolute beginner, but keep in mind that there are a lot of people in the class who already know how to code in a different language and are only there to learn Python, and don't get discouraged if it seems like other people are finding it a lot easier than you are.) I think that I enjoy it for some of the reasons that I like knitting. It's really process oriented, and there's a lot of trying things out, failing and trying a different way, googling different methods of doing things, etc.. But there's also a finished product at the end, and it's an amazing feeling when you work really hard on something and then it works the way you want it to work. There's also the possibility of taking someone else's basic pattern and tweaking it to be your own, which is something I enjoy.

    I definitely think you should take a look at MOOCs in general. They've gotten a bad rap because they've been oversold as a substitute for real higher ed, which they're not. But they can be great for people who aren't in school but are interested in stretching their brains and learning a little bit about a topic.
    posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:08 AM on May 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

    Cryptic crosswords
    Mostly a British thing but I love them. Explanation. Guardian daily.

    Learn Japanese Kanji
    Language learning is good in general but you can try and stretch your brain beyond your familiar character sets. Highly recommend WaniKani for this. From there you can go to other sources for Japanese Grammar.

    Reading Natural History books, History books in general, Biographies.
    A great way to learn more about how Nature works, how modern ideas developed and so on. The best ones are of course well-written and engaging. Highly recommend, for example, The Invention of Nature: The adventures of Alexander von Humboldt.

    Wife is a keen bird-watcher. Through her we both started paying more attention to the dynamic landscape around us. The cycles of trees, birds, frogs, butterflies, insects, spiders. When you start really noticing, you also notice when things are not happening as they should. A nearby forest has little birdsong and we finally deduce that there is an overabundance of bats nearby who are eating up vast quantities of insects. The landscape around you - true in urban environments as well - is a complex thing always changing, rewarding to observe.
    posted by vacapinta at 6:11 AM on May 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

    Crosswords may or may not fit the bill, but if it's something that's interesting to you, the NYT digital crossword subscription is $40/year, which comes out to about 15 cents per crossword.

    Something else that I've found success with are study groups/book clubs with friends at a semi-regular cadence. They're self-paced, since it's totally up to the group, but I've found that one meeting every week or two is required to actually maintain the group.
    posted by kejadlen at 8:57 AM on May 2, 2017

    A small-scale suggestion for brain-exercising: Come up with an entry for the New Yorker cartoon caption contest every week.
    posted by miles per flower at 11:53 AM on May 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

    I like editing or writing new articles on Wikipedia. I learn a lot (even about things I was pretty sure I knew, but it's different when you have to write it concisely and cite it) and it feels useful.
    posted by Salamandrous at 5:40 PM on May 2, 2017 [6 favorites]

    Start a blog, join a board game night
    posted by semaphore at 7:03 PM on May 2, 2017

    I study cognitive reserve, which is neurological and cognitive resilience to neurodegeneration. According to the literature in my field, the most often cited things you can do to improve mental fitness are:
    1) reading (not Twitter, but novels, non-finction, newspapers, essays, etc.)
    2) musical training (probably the most effective, but not so easy on one's own)
    3) learning or speaking a second language
    4) playing mentally challenging games like chess
    5) interact with new technology in advanced ways
    6) take classes (doesn't much matter what as long as it's new)
    7) make sure that you're in charge of maintaining your own life (bills, plans, shopping, cleaning)
    8) maintaining social relationships (host people in your home, speak to relatives, be in touch with people of different generations)
    9) artistic hobbies
    10) active traveling (picking locations, learning about them, planning itineraries)
    11) physical activity!
    posted by Cygnet at 3:18 PM on May 6, 2017 [8 favorites]

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